Death With Dignity

Hospice helps terminal patients seize the day


A year ago, Dorothy Wilkirson, who suffers from breast cancer, was alone, frightened and contemplating her own mortality.

Today, at 78, she sits in her living room surrounded by new friends, laughing, joking and enjoying a much better attitude about her life and death.

The difference, she said, is RTA Hospice.

Nearly three years ago, Dorothy found a lump in her breast --a discovery that would have sent most women running to their family physician. But with the loss of her husband and only daughter years earlier, Dorothy said she resigned herself to a death sentence and decided to accept whatever fate had in store for her.

"Bill (Snider, her nephew-in-law,) kept telling me to go to the doctor," she said, "and I finally did, but it was too late."

To combat the cancer's advanced state, Dorothy endured radical radiation therapy, which damaged one of her lungs. Now she has to cart around an oxygen tank wherever she goes. She lives with pain from time to time and battles a disease day to day that has destroyed even its strongest opponents.

As Dorothy's illness progressed, it was her physicians, Robert Rimmer and David Cluff, who suggested she check out RTA Hospice. She said at the time, she had no support system to help her deal with her disease, and suffered frequently and silently in pain.

"I just wasn't ready at that time (to call hospice)," she said. "I was still running around, I was still active. But the doctors knew."

Reluctantly, Dorothy made her initial call to hospice, and the workers and volunteers took it from there. Hospice workers visit their patients as often as needed or wanted. They check on the patient's health, offer a shoulder to cry on, or whatever it takes to pick up the spirits of their charge.

Dorothy's hospice team visits at least four days a week, more if needed. Her team includes a registered nurse, a nursing assistant and two volunteers --all of whom help her cope with her illness and allow her to live life as best she can.

With her pain carefully managed, and a new outlook on life, Dorothy said she's nearly unstoppable --even with her oxygen tank in tow.

"No, that doesn't stop her," said her nurse, Frances Porter. "We have to step on her oxygen hose to hold her down long enough to check her over."

The damage to Dorothy's lung causes it to fill with fluid, and it must be drained every two weeks or so.

"She just starts to run out of gas," Porter said. Dorothy's primary physician, Dr. Cluff, has been very flexible, she said, when it comes time for treatment.

"He's very good," Porter said. "Even though ... he still looks like a little kid."

"I know," Turney chimed in. "The first time I saw him, I thought, 'My gosh, I've got a cookie sheet older than him.'"

Laughing, Dorothy patted Turney's knee and said, "See, this is what keeps me going. This little one is my uplifter."

In addition to the cancer and damaged lung, Dorothy also suffers from macular degeneration --an eye disease that is gradually robbing her of her eyesight. Even that hasn't stopped her. She watches television with the assistance of field glasses, and crochets afghans for virtually everyone she knows, and their pets.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, Dorothy said there was no depression in signing on for hospice care.

"I had always heard about hospice, that there was someplace you could go to die," she said. "By signing up with hospice, I didn't feel it was a death sentence.

"I know I'm not going to live. I've lived a very good life. I've done more things in my lifetime, and have done more than most women have done.

"When my daughter was alive, we traveled all over the world. I've just had a very good life. I've been very wealthy and I've been very poor. I've had a beautiful home on the golf course at the Phoenix Country Club. I've had a two-bedroom, one-bath house on Osborn Road that I had to struggle to keep, to make the mortgage payment. Now, I'm just very comfortable."

To ensure the patient's comfort, hospice also offers a variety of other services, including a minister to talk with, a lawyer to help with any last-minute legal matters, beauticians, guidance counselors, and just about anything else a person might require to meet their death with dignity and grace.

"Hospice is about life," said Hospice volunteer Kathleen Hughes. "Quality of life is probably one of the most important things we do. We want people to live each day as fully as possible. Some people are like Dorothy, who can go to the Valley and do other things. Other people can't, but we try to nurture them, and encourage them and assist them in having as good a quality as their condition allows. Carpe Diem, seize the day."

Now facing her mortality head on, Dorothy said she can picture what her life would be like without her new hospice family, but it's not a pretty picture.

"I'd probably be just sitting in a chair, probably hurting, and wondering when the good man upstairs is going to take me. Why is he keeping me," she said. "The girls have made me feel that I am worth something. He put me here for some reason. I don't know why, but there must be a reason. I have had this now for 2 1/2 years, and I'm still going strong. Somebody is helping me."

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